Producing commodities and value in ancient Greece

Value is a human creation

John Bridge takes issue with those who see value as being natural to all societies and all times. Communism will leave behind such fetishistic forms

I always enjoy reading Arthur Bough’s letters, articles and blogs. He is dogged, opinionated and refreshingly outspoken. Sometimes (maybe too often), however, I find myself disagreeing with him - his latest contribution on ‘value’ being a case in point (Letters, November 1).

My contention is that money, prices, profit, surplus-value, exchange-value … and value, are all characteristic features of commodity production (the highest example being capitalism, where labour-power itself typically becomes a commodity: ie, capitalism is generalised commodity production).

Comrade Bough disagrees. He maintains - perhaps along with Moshé Machover - that: “Value is labour and, as labour is undertaken in all forms of society, there is value in all modes of production.” At Communist University, unless I’m badly mistaken, comrade Machover also spoke of abstract labour in the same naturalistic terms. I believe that this confuses, not clarifies, matters.

Let me repeat, comrades are free to use words and concepts in any damned way they like. I am not proposing a Marxist version of the Académie Française that arbitrates over our language. Of course, words and concepts evolve … but, particularly in science, having clear, precise, consistent definitions establishes essentials, helps reliable communication, builds a cohesive theoretical framework and provides the firm foundations needed for further investigations. A casual attitude towards accepted definitions, rejecting vital distinctions and ignoring plain statements constitute obvious dangers. There is the risk of generating more heat than light ... and for no good purpose at that.


Establishing what Marx and Engels meant by ‘value’ necessitates using quotations - sometimes quite extensive quotations. Some are provided by comrade Bough, others by myself. Whenever it helps, I have tried to provide some context. Admittedly, an argument over texts written 150 years ago does not make for an easy read, but, I think, it is vital, if the reader is going to come to their own informed opinion.

Let me get the show on the road, not with Marx and Engels themselves, but with four, unmistakably diverse, sources.

Firstly, Wikipedia: “When speaking in terms of a labour theory of value, ‘value’, without any qualifying adjective, should theoretically refer to the amount of labour necessary to produce a marketable commodity, including the labour necessary to develop any real capital used in the production.”1

Secondly, a Progress Publishers definition: “Value: social labour materialised in commodities”.2

Thirdly, there is Isaak Illich Rubin, a former Menshevik: In a primitive communistic community, or in a feudal village, the product of labour has ‘value’ in the sense of utility, use-value, but it does not have ‘value’. The product acquires value only in conditions where it is a product specifically for sale and acquires, on the market, an objective and evaluation which equalises it (through money) with all other commodities and gives it the property of being exchangeable for other commodities. In other words, a determined form of economy (commodity economy), a determined form of organisation of labour, through separate, privately owned enterprises, are assumed. Labour does not, in itself, give value to the product, but only that labour which is organised in a determined social form (in the form of a commodity economy).3

Fourthly, there is Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, a ‘left’ communist in 1918 and close ally of Leon Trotsky’s in the mid-1920s: “the law of value begins to operate wherever the production relations of commodity and commodity capitalist economy appear”.4

These selected extracts serve to show that there is a broad consensus within post-Marx Marxism, ie, the Marxism after the deaths of Marx and Engels, that ‘value’ refers to the exchange of socially necessary labour-time through the purchase and sale of commodities. In other words, ‘value’ is a category unique to the system of commodity production (commodities are, of course, products made for the market: they have use-value, but, crucially, exchange-value).

As we have seen, comrade Bough disagrees: “Value is labour and, as labour is undertaken in all forms of society, there is value in all modes of production.” He believes he finds his ‘proof’ in the writings of Marx and Engels, eg, Marx’s letter to Kugelmann, the Robinson Crusoe passage in Capital Vol 1, Engels’ Anti-Dühring and Capital Vol 3. Excellent, we have are cue to bring Marx and Engels themselves into the argument.

So let us take Marx’s 1868 letter to his friend, Ludwig Kugelmann. Replying to him, in Hanover, Marx lambasts the “unfortunate fellow”, Julius Faucher - once a Young Hegelian and now a member of the Prussian chamber of deputies. Faucher is unwilling, for his own muddled reasons, to concede that labour constitutes the essence of value. Faucher wants, instead, to derive exchange-value from the amount of labour-time “saved”. Marx delivers this crushing put down:

Every child knows a nation which ceased to work - I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks - would perish. Every child knows, too, that the masses of products corresponding to the different needs required different and quantitatively determined masses of the total labour of society. That this necessity of the distribution of social labour in definite proportions cannot possibly be done away with by a particular form of social production, but can only change the mode of its appearance, is self-evident. No natural laws can be done away with.

What can change in historically different circumstances is only the form in which these laws assert themselves. And the form in which this proportional distribution of labour asserts itself, in the state of society where the interconnection of social labour is manifested in the private exchange of the individual products of labour, is precisely the exchange-value of these products.5

Not only is social labour vital. So is the division of that labour. It is a “natural law”. Hunter-gatherer tribes divide tasks and according to gender, custom, circumstance and need they decide how much time should be devoted to those tasks. So much social labour is allocated to big-game hunting; so much to gathering seeds, nuts, berries and grasses; so much to preparing food and cooking.

Other societies do the exact same thing … but they do so in their own different ways. Whereas hunter-gatherers are militantly egalitarian, proudly autonomous and self-activating, with class society there comes the subordination of one individual to another. Stewards, overseers and managers issue orders. Others are expected to obey those orders. So what changes is “the form” in which the “natural law” of society distributes labour “in definite proportions” manifests itself. Put another way, the form of the law of the distribution of social labour, “in definite proportions”, is historically determined. It changes from one society to another. However, as Marx makes clear, when we arrive at commodity production, the “distribution of social labour in definite proportions” happens indirectly, through exchange, through the market, through money, through value.

What about Robinson Crusoe’s appearance in the pages of Capital? Before bringing him onto the stage, note, once again, Marx is taking aim against a political opponent - in this case Sedley Taylor, a Cambridge University professor and tinkering advocate of profit-sharing. Taylor believed that labour “participated” in the “profits of enterprise”, but wanted to go no further.

Marx explains to his readers that the scientific understanding of the distinction between products and commodities comes about post factum. Before the thought there is the reality. The commodity as an emergent form can, to begin with, only be understood embryonically. “Consequently”, in terms of bourgeois political economy, Marx says, it was the “analysis of the prices of commodities that alone led to the determination of the magnitude of value”. However, the price form - prices being the money name of commodities - “conceals”, instead of discloses, the “social relations between individual producers”.6

The categories of “bourgeois economy” are in thrall to what Marx’s calls ‘commodity fetishism’. “Value” is therefore “a relation between person expressed as a relation between things”: money and shoes, money and coats, etc. And, of course, money, a special commodity because it serves as the universal equivalent, is venerated, worshiped, credited with supernatural powers. But the “whole mystery of commodities”, all the magic that “surrounds the products of labour, as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes … so soon as we come to other forms of production”.

Hence we come to Robinson Crusoe. Shipwrecked, alone, stuck on his little Caribbean island, he learns, through trial and error, to “apportion his time” between “different kinds of work”. He is, of course, interested in obtaining various “objects of utility”. There is no money, no buying, no system of exchange. Only nature and the labour-time Crusoe is prepared to devote to his various productive activities: shooting birds, harvesting crops, drying grapes, tending the goats, making clothes. He makes a rough and ready time calculation about the “average cost to him”. Here, announces Marx, is “all that is essential to the determination of value”.7

Now, given this Robinsonade, even the blinkered mind of Sedley Taylor should be able to recognise the fact that it is labour, and labour alone, that “determines the magnitude of value”. Daniel Defoe’s fictional character is, of course, being used as a parable. Used for purposes of illustration. Because relations between Robinson Crusoe and nature are so simple, transparent and readily understood, they can be used to illuminate, bring into view, the complex, opaque and puzzling capitalist relations of production (the object of Marx’s monumental study). Marx is certainly not trying to establish that Crusoe produced commodities with a value corresponding to his labour inputs. The ‘value’ that concerns Crusoe is utility: in other words, use-value. Exchange-value is but a fading memory.

To overcome any remaining doubts, let us turn to contrast Marx draws between commodity production and ‘other societies’. “Compulsory labour”, a traditional obligation forced upon serfs by the military might of the feudal magnets, is, says Marx, “just as properly measured in time as commodity-producing labour”. The same goes for the future. Marx imagines a “community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common”. Labour will be apportioned according to a definite plan and measured in units of time. Under generalised commodity production, under capitalism, labour is “represented by the value of its product, and the labour-time by the magnitude of that value”. Marx adds in a long footnote that the “value form” is not only the “most abstract, but is also the most universal form, taken by the product in bourgeois production, and stamps that production as a particular species of social production, and thereby gives it its special historical character”. Treating this mode of production as natural, as being essentially no different from other societies, necessarily overlooks that which is the “differentia specifica of the value-form, and consequently the commodity form”.8

In my original letter on value (October 25), I expressed my doubts about Moshé Machover’s Communist University talk. Here, I provided a surely clinching reference to value contained in Engels’s Anti-Dühring (written in collaboration with Marx). Engels is, by the way, as the title suggests, busy demolishing the system-mongering of a certain Eugen Dühring (yet another university professor). Dühring argues that “in the future society” the principle of value will be maintained as a “natural law” … when it comes to distribution. Here is what Engels says in reply:

From the moment when society enters into possession of the means of production and uses them in direct association for production, the labour of each individual, however varied its specifically useful character may be, becomes at the start and directly social labour. The quantity of social labour contained in a product need not then be established in a roundabout way; daily experience shows in a direct way how much of it is required on the average. Society can simply calculate how many hours of labour are contained in a steam-engine, a bushel of wheat of the last harvest, or a hundred square yards of cloth of a certain quality.

It could therefore never occur to it still to express the quantities of labour put into the products - quantities which it will then know directly and in their absolute amounts, in a third product - in a measure which, besides, is only relative, fluctuating, inadequate, though formerly unavoidable for lack of a better one, rather than express them in their natural, adequate and absolute measure, time ….

Hence, on the assumptions we made above, society will not assign values to products. It will not express the simple fact that the hundred square yards of cloth have required for their production, say, a thousand hours of labour in the oblique and meaningless way, stating that they have the value of a thousand hours of labour. It is true that even then it will still be necessary for society to know how much labour each article of consumption requires for its production. It will have to arrange its plan of production in accordance with its means of production, which include, in particular, its labour-powers. The useful effects of the various articles of consumption, compared with one another and with the quantities of labour required for their production, will in the end determine the plan. People will be able to manage everything very simply, without the intervention of much-vaunted ‘value’.9

So the communist mode of production would “not assign values to products”. Society will dispense with value. Instead, it will apportion labour and use labour-time as the standard unit of account. Simple. There are 24 hours in the day, seven days in the week, etc.

Why did comrade Bough not go straight to the point and take issue with the statement: “People will be able to manage everything very simply, without the intervention of much-vaunted ‘value’”? Are the Marx-Engels team really telling us that socialist-communist society will be “able to manage” everything without labour? Surely not. As “every child knows”, that would be impossible. No society could survive without the input of labour. Are the Marx-Engels team really telling us that socialist-communist society will dispense with apportioning quantities of the labour-time needed to go into different products? Surely not. As “every child knows”, violating such an natural law would be a big mistake.

Marxism stresses historical specificity. Ideas, moral principles … socio-economic categories, correspond to definite social formations. They are historically established and therefore transitory. Not fixed, sacrosanct or eternal, as maintained by bourgeois ideologists - who assume, as a matter of course, that trade, prices, greed, profit - capitalism itself - is somehow lodged in our DNA.

Comrade Bough has, like me, turned to Anti-Dühring …but in his case to the footnote Engels attached to the passage just quoted above:“As long ago as 1844 I stated that the … balancing of useful effects and expenditure of labour on making decisions concerning production was all that would be left, in a communist society, of the politico-economic concept of value.”

Marx writes in a similar vein - indeed, comrade Bough quotes him:

… after the abolition of the capitalist mode of production, but still retaining social production, the determination of value continues to prevail, in the sense that the regulation of labour-time and the distribution of social labour among the various production groups - ultimately the book-keeping encompassing all this - become more essential than ever.10

Exactly. Nothing will remain of value except apportioning labour in order to produce the use-values communist society requires. We can say the same with trade. Remove exchange, prices, money and the market, and all that remains is the distribution of products. Everyone takes according to their need … not their contribution. Products are merely picked up, accessed or delivered. To conclude from that, however, that trade continues under communism would be more than absurd.

All societies rely on labour-power - that cannot be denied. Human labour - applied to what is found in nature - is responsible for the products, the use-values society consumes and requires for its reproduction. But, as will already be appreciated, how that labour is directed, coordinated, assessed and sustained varies greatly from one society to another.

The plan that socialist-communist society will draw up, for example, with a view to fulfilling the whole gamut of individual needs and taking forward commonly agreed social objectives, does not rely on value. That is for sure. To claim otherwise is surely to miss the vital distinction between the law of the plan and the law of value.

Under the plan, labour-power is allocated consciously - through the collective decision-making of the associated producers themselves. Under the system of commodity production, labour-power is allocated spontaneously - through market exchange, through the law of value. That is why, under capitalism, stock market speculators, company CEOs and top state officials can afford to be blithely ignorant, when it comes to the underlying socio-economic laws. The law of value spontaneously regulates the economy ... behind their backs. They explain their successes by claiming to be geniuses; they explain away their failures by blaming governments, treacherous rivals or the fickle public. The labour theory of value is irrelevant to them. Eg, Keynesianism has no explanation of the origin of profit.


Value is, after all a socio-economic category, which is “the most comprehensive expression of the enslavement of the producers by their own product”.11 We can see this even in emergent forms. Take the owners of slaves in the ancient world. They knew perfectly well how much time and how many hands were needed to perform various tasks.12 To begin with, in the early period, what was produced through slave labour was entirely directed towards the immediate consumption of the household. There was no value, no generalised system of exchange. The patriarch is interested in use-values. However, if the product was characteristically made for others, worked up for sale on the market, for exchange, then the product assumes the well-known dual characteristics of a commodity: use-value and exchange-value. The distinction between use-value and exchange-value allows us to locate the source of the different social relationship that correspondingly arise.

The production of use-values alone could see slaves treated in a relatively benign fashion. Homer provides a touching description of his hero, Odysseus, working alongside his slaves in the fields of his island kingdom of Ithaca. Social relations are direct. Slave-owner and slave have a real bond of affection - doubtlessly sincere for the master; a necessary pose, as far as the slave is concerned.

Either way, compare Odysseus, and patriarchal Bronze Age civilisation, with the harrowing, sickening accounts of classical Athens. The demos of Athens treated the slaves it set to work in the silver mines of Laurion as mere things, not fellow human beings. Slaves were mercilessly driven to exhaustion and often beyond. Death rates were horrendous. However, all that matters, as far as the Athenian state is concerned, are the price of silver on the one hand and on the other hand the price charged by pirate-merchants for the human cargo seized from around the eastern Mediterranean coastline.

Both sets of slaves were exploited; both produced a surplus. In the first case, though, surplus-product, in the second, surplus-value. As shown, radically different social relationships arise on the basis of such an elementary distinction. Hence, joked Engels, wanting to abolish money, production for exchange and class exploitation, while retaining value, amounts to abolishing Catholicism by electing a new pope.


1. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_theory_of_value#Definitions_of_value_and_labor.

2. MI Volkov (ed) A dictionary of political economy Moscow 1985, p382.

3. II Rubin Essays on Marx’s theory of value Montreal 1990, p68.

4. E Preobrazhensky The new economics Oxford 1967, p57.

5. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 43, Moscow 1998, p68.

6. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p75.

7. Ibid p77.

8. Ibid p81n.

9. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 25, London 1987, p294-95.

10. K Marx Capital Vol 3, London 1972, p851.

11. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 25, London 1987, p297.

12. For a modern-day popular account, see J Toner How to manage your slaves by Marcus Sidonius Falx London 2014.